Letter from India

The Craftsperson and the Designer
Not Patronage: A New Interface

The Covid-19 pandemic has created two years of a frozen marketplace – both in India and abroad. Malls, stores and fashion houses world-wide have been closed; orders have been cancelled. . . . The shows, celebrations, weddings and festivals that fed their sales are at an end. Even film stars and socialites are wearing tracksuits!

Designers, craftspeople, retailers, exporters are all in the same choppy sea, desperately trying to keep afloat. An industry that is dependent on the free flow of customers, consumerism and markets has crawled to a virtual standstill.

The fashion industry is often perceived as decadent luxury, the crafts sector as primitive and incongruous with India’s aspirational twenty-first-century, hi-tech image. Yet both fashion and craft are interdependent. Both are a huge potential source of employment and earning, including for home-based women. As we reflect in this time of economic crisis, we should see this potential as a goldmine.

It seems a good time for introspection. As always, all sections of the industry need to play on their strengths, not their weaknesses. Sitting bewailing the situation is pointless. One great strength that India has is its wealth of skilled hands and amazing techniques – unmatched in the world. The sheer numbers enable handcraft to still be competitive in an otherwise mechanized market. For centuries people have come to India for its embroideries, its prints, its weaves, its appliqué, its beadwork, metal work, leather craft and wood carving. Every district and corner of India has its own distinctive technique, motif and design traditions. These have embellished and inspired Western fashion and design over the ages. India was maker to the world. It still can be.

I think Indian designers need to relook at their product ranges (high-end fashion needs to be put on a temporary back burner) and instead develop collections that compete effectively with the Western mass-market brands that are temporarily unavailable. Also they can make them more functional and appropriate to our seasons, climate and wearing styles, so they have a more universal, timeless appeal.

In a series of diary entries posted on Alessandro Michele’s Instagram account in 2020, the Gucci designer said he intended to “abandon the worn-out ritual of seasonalities and shows” in order to “regain a new cadence.” He added: “I would like to leave behind the paraphernalia of leitmotifs that colonized our prior world: cruise, pre-fall, spring-summer, fall-winter. I think these are stale and underfed words.”

His goal of “purifying the essential by getting rid of the unnecessary” resonated with me, for it is tied to concerns about the fashion industry’s environmental footprint. Similarly, in an open letter to Women’s Wear Daily, Giorgio Armani argued that a “careful and intelligent slowdown” is “the only way out” of the current crisis. Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour called on the fashion industry to have “more of an emphasis on sustainability” and on “luxury and creativity and craft.” India is equipped to make just such a jump and set an example for slow, sustainable fashion – something that has always been the essence of traditional Indian aesthetic and wearing styles.

The Indian craft sector, especially its varied textile traditions, could be the powerhouse leading this new revolution. To maximize this, Indian designers would have to move out of their comfort zones and discover and spend time with those myriads of craftspeople in distant rural corners, rather than just piggyback on the master craftspeople working in Zardozi,Ikat and embroidery who are already in the market; to familiarize themselves with looms and addas and discover that there is more to Indian textiles than Banaras, Chanderi and Kanjeeveram. They should develop Dharmaveram, Paithani, Patola, Narayanpet, Gadwal, Uppada, Himru, Mashru, Kalamkari, Kotpad, Tangalia. . . . Rather than bewail the commercial appropriation of Sanganer and Kalamkari, they should reinterpret Ajrak, Saudagiri prints, Bagh and Bagru, Bandini and Laheria. They can discover that Indian embroidery goes beyond gold sequins, Chikankari and Kantha work. They would also need to help small rural product units scale up and understand quality, standardization, timelines, to adapt looms that are meant for weaving draped saris into producing stitched, garment-friendly fabric, and to create storage and packing facilities . . .

In my view, the freedom of making limited editions of quality, high-end but not constantly changing products suits the innovative skills and production capabilities of Indian craftspeople much better than mass-producing hundreds of identical low-cost items or products that have a shelf life of just one season. Machines are already replicating most of these. The fact that each handcrafted piece can be unique and different is an asset, not a weakness. The Chinese, the Japanese and the Indonesians discovered this long ago, leaving low-cost mass production of tourist souvenirs to their high-tech factories, often using synthetic polymers that allow our depleting reserves of natural raw materials to be put to better use.

There are silver linings to even the darkest cloud. Two years of Covid, seeing those endless streams of migrant labourers returning from cities to their villages – jobless, homeless, without savings or social security – have shown young craftspeople that the hereditary expertise they already possess actually provides a firmer foundation for economic stability than an unskilled factory job. For over forty years, India has been losing 15 percent of its craftspeople every decade, wooed by the glittering lights and aspirational lures of the city. We need to grab this opportunity to rebuild pride in their traditional occupations, giving craftspeople today the social recognition and economic returns that their skills deserve.

In a world where green issues and intellectual property rights are becoming mainstream global concerns, Indian craft – its techniques, traditions, and its makers – should be named, not anonymous. They should be sought-after labels in themselves.

The key to success and sustainability for both designer and craftsperson is partnership, not patronage, a relationship of mutual respect, investment and sharing. While doing this, we must remember that the craftsperson, be he weaver, embroiderer, printer or whatever, is a creative artist as well as a skilled professional. Listening to his vision and priorities as well as what the market demands is a sensitivity we must all cultivate.

A sudden brain haemorrhage three weeks ago took away a cherished friend and master craftsman. Mohammed Ayyub was known as much for his gentle ways and old-world tehzeeb as for his skilled hands, carving intricate delicate patterns into wooden blocks for textile printing.

Working with him over the years, his benevolent quiet presence was a feature of our lives, as was the great skill we could never persuade him to monetize. Ever ready to try out a new sample or teach a prospective young karigar the secrets of his art, he nevertheless remained firmly within his own comfort zone, content to make beautiful things slowly, perfectly and in his own way, rather than scaling up his craft into a more commercially lucrative operation.

This lack of worldly ambition could be exasperating, but there was something Zen-like and admirable as well.

Remembering the astounding, exquisite detail of the intertwined curving florals of his award-winning two-foot paisley block, but also the delicate precise movements of his hands and chisel, and that look of contentment that was never pride as he completed and showed one his work, I reflected that in a world of increasing aggression and competition, this gentle, creative mindfulness is also of great value. Those craftspeople for whom their craft itself is more important than the profit to be made from it are its true benefactors – perpetuating and perfecting our traditions and handing them on to future generations. This is something we must never forget. As they cherish their craft, we need to cherish them.

Laila Tyabji, February 2022

Laila Tyabji is a craft designer, writer, and chairperson of DASTKAR, the craft NGO she helped found. She has been working with grassroots artisans all over India for over four decades.